Reading Richard White’s Railroaded was fascinating for me on any number of levels, but perhaps one reason above all others is that I have from an early age been enamored by trains and the railroad. (Blame Thomas.) Living near the Port of Los Angeles, my train-obsessed mind loved listening into the night for the soft whistle of the trains carrying freight to and from the port, and when I was young mom and I would go on late night drives trying to get stuck behind a train signal so I could watch them go by. I poured myself into learning as much as I could about trains, and one of the major themes I caught up on was how, in spite of all the difficulties, the discrimination, and the danger, the steel rails of the railroad connected the nation together. Though some of these “difficulties” made it into my mind–the plight of the Chinese to tunnel through the Rockies, for example–in the end I was always too focused on the positive “connecting the nation” bit to look too much into them.
It is for this reason that I say, without (too much) malice, that Railroaded has destroyed my childhood. All the books I had read on the railroad when I was younger combined the fates of the various railroad companies and left a message concentrated on the larger picture of tying the nation together. White’s book was the first for me to ignore the railroad and delve deeper into the railroads, and the results are much darker that I had thought earlier. White’s portrayal of 19th-century railroad companies reminds me of many of the modern-day tropes for an “evil corporation”, from rampant corruption and little accountability to manipulating the authority of the state to the reduction of human beings and livelihoods to mere numbers. It says a lot that rather than reinforcing in any way the positive long-term effects of the railroad, White ends his book with most of the companies bloated with mismanagement and bureaucracy to the point of collapsing under their own weight, in turn leading to the Panic of 1893 and a boom-bust cycle still seen today. I feel like a fan of Disney’s The Little Mermaid discovering the book it’s based off of ends with her stabbing herself.
Despite the crushing of my childhood dreams, however, I am neither too saddened by the revelation nor am I all that surprised. I suppose in many ways I had outgrown my childhood fancies enough to recognize there was more to the story that I knew. Perhaps it is more indicative of a certain amount of cynicism that comes with being a historian (or “Professional Curmudgeon,” to quote Dr. O’Malley). In any case, Richard White’s Railroaded has certainly given me plenty more to talk about when it comes to the railroads crossing the west.
On the other hand, however, it still is a fact that the western railroads did play a significant positive role in the nations’ development in the twentieth century, if not so much the nineteenth. In any case, when I’m reading Thomas the Tank Engine to my two-year-old niece, I don’t think I’ll change the ending to Sir Topham Hatt happily sending Thomas and the other steam trains to the scrap yard for trying to unionize against the diesel engines.
At least, not yet.
This week I commented on Chris‘ blog.